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March 31, 2009

...It's Official!

Oysters Dominic Armato

Originally, the plan was to spend two years in Baltimore and head back to Chicago. That didn't quite work out. Then, we were a heartbeat away from landing in Sacramento. That didn't quite happen either. A brief flirtation with Phoenix? Nuh-uh. So while it came out of left field at the last minute (and is one of the reasons it's been a little... um... quiet around here lately), I'm pleased to announce that come July, Skillet Doux will be relocating to Boston, Mass.

So while I rush around and try to cram in all of the Baltimore stuff I still haven't gotten around to in the last 21 months, let's get some Beantown intel flowing, people. Any Bostonians (Bostonites? Bostoners?) in the crowd? I am especially (though certainly not exclusively) interested in places that are open late, so that once the imminent Little Doux II has started sleeping through the night, I may resume my midnight chow outings.

Until then, more about Baltimore, some side trips, and I'm still trying to get caught up on the holiday backlog... sorry folks!

(P.S. Ugh... recycled photo. And not especially Boston-esque, either. I'll amend that as soon as I'm back home and have access to the photo library. Speaking of which, writing and photos from New Orleans shortly! So far? Mother's = eh. Cochon = pleasantly porky. Domilise's = woot! Dick & Jenny's = BOO-yah! And that's officially the last time you'll ever see me use "boo-yah" in a culinary context. Or any context, hopefully.)

(P.P.S. I just noticed the date. No, this is not a joke. And if it were, it'd be a pretty pointless one. We're actually moving to Boston in July.)

March 18, 2009

Offered Without Comment

17-Mar-09 @ Fresh World Dominic Armato

March 16, 2009

Graham Elliot

Foiellipops Dominic Armato

One of the great shames of my last stretch in Chicago was that I never quite managed to make it to Avenues under Graham Elliot Bowles. Despite hitting just about every other fine dining landmark, despite hearing from many friends that Bowles was the most underappreciated of Chicago's high-end chefs, I kept waiting for the right occasion. And then he was gone, tired of fine china and table linens, bored with stuffy service and precious presentations, and ready to strike out on his own. For a fellow who could basically write his own ticket, the path he chose was surprising to some. But for anybody who had been paying attention to Bowles' irreverence and ebullience, Graham Elliot -- the restaurant -- shouldn't have come as a surprise.

Bowles is regularly lumped in with Chicago's MG wonder twins Achatz and Cantu, but it's an unfair comparison. He's more playful and less petri dish, with a penchant for bridging the gap between what we perceive as upscale and downscale foods. This is, after all, the guy who famously brought together foie gras and pop rocks. As such, his "bistronomic" concept, bringing fine dining down to an approachable, casual level, would seem a natural angle for him to take. Graham Elliot is what happens when a four star chef gets sick of being fussy. The food is high-concept, very creative and painstakingly executed, but served on $3 Ikea plates by a Converse-clad wait staff while punk music blares. It's a concept that might come across as conceit if it didn't seem such a genuine reflection of Bowles' sensibilities, and maybe it does try a little too hard at times. But the guy isn't trying to change the world. He's just trying to have a little fun.

Caesar Salad Dominic Armato
It's a hip River North space that has enough of a vibe to keep scenesters happy without becoming a full-blown scene. The tables are bare, the floors are hardwood, the brick and ductwork are exposed and the lighting changes color with the seasons. (For the record, while this last detail makes restaurant photography a nightmare, I'm not so paranoid as to count myself among those who believe this is consciously intended to foil bloggers.) The walls are covered with a grid of mirrored boxes containing seasonal ingredients, and a simmering pot of aromatics -- pinecones and juniper when I visited in December -- hits your nose before you even set foot in the front door. It's loud. Not such that you can't hear yourself think, but quiet conversation isn't happening. Thankfully, it's a good selection of tunes. And baskets of creatively seasoned popcorn show up on the table in lieu of bread service. In short, Graham Elliot goes to great lengths to demonstrate how Not Formal it is, and yet I found any conceit I felt completely forgivable with the exception of our server, who spoke to us at great length as though we were culinary idiots. A little insight into the menu is always appreciated, and I like to know in detail what, precisely, I'm being served. But a full-blown unsolicited lecture on how any food lover knows that the true test of a good tartare is in the knife work and the texture achieved is just fricking annoying, and it's a trend that needs to stop.

Venison Steak Tartare Dominic Armato
The menu is conceptually subdivided into sections titled Cold, Hot, Sea, Land and Sweet. It's a little bit of superfluous flair but it works perfectly well, with the first two representing starters, the second two representing entrees and the final containing the desserts. The menu items themselves, however, are often completely off the wall, coming across as the mad brainchild of a junkfood junkie with formal culinary training. The widely reviled Cheese-It risotto is no longer offered, but this is still a menu that features root beer, pop rocks, Budweiser foam and Bowles' take on buffalo wings. We went with a huge crowd of friends, the upshot of which is that I was able to sample about half the menu in one go. The downside was that much of it was tiny tastes, some of which left big impressions and some of which simply seemed inadequate to form any strong opinions. But here's my take on what I ate (or what I remember of what I ate), for better or worse.

Buffalo Chicken Dominic Armato
Bowles' playfulness was evident right out of the gate, both for better and for worse. His caesar salad has gained notoriety for its brioche "twinkies": large, lightly crisped croutons with a cream cheese filling. But despite the twist (which worked for me, actually), the dish was a winner on the basis of an excellent traditional dressing and somewhat less-than-traditional white anchovy fillets. It's tough to make a caesar stand out without butchering the concept, but this one did just that. Another winner for me was the venison tartare, which fulfilled the promise of four star food at least from the standpoint of endless components. Plated with cranberry mostarda, hazelnut "paper", juniper gelato and parsley cream, there was a lot going on both in terms of texture and presentation. But the marriage of textures worked, the flavors popped, they worked well in concert and -- perhaps most surprisingly -- they didn't completely obliterate the venison. This isn't a preparation for tartare purists, but it was one of my more enjoyable bites of the evening.

Root Beer Pork Belly Dominic Armato
Less successful, I thought, was Bowles' buffalo chicken. Here, I might be in the minority, as many who are down on the rest of the menu seem to consider this one of the bright points. Rather than bringing the fancy-schmancy down to earth, he applies unusual care to bar food, plating crispy chunks of chicken (thigh, if memory serves?) with a homemade hot wing sauce, celeriac slaw, chunky bleu cheese sauce and Budweiser foam. My issue wasn't that it wasn't delicious. It was. And it had me thinking about how each element was elevated with unusual care. But my first and last thought with every bite was, "Yup... that's a buffalo wing," and it struck me as kind of a pointless exercise. Delicious? Yes. An interesting repackaging of the traditional wing? Absolutely. I'm just not convinced that the buffalo wing was in need of elevation, or that this iteration brought anything to the classic other than a pretty face.

Maple Glazed Scallops Dominic Armato
Entrees, however, were all positive experiences to varying degrees. In a shocking role reversal, my ladylove was the one to order the pork belly, braised with root beer and served with grits, collard greens and plum marmalade. The belly was far too lean for my tastes (something our server touted as indicative of its high quality, to my continuing annoyance), but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the root beer glaze. Once I got over the initial shock of it, I had to concede that it almost seemed a natural pairing. One of the less notable but perfectly tasty bites that passed my way was that of a maple-glazed scallop, served with oatmeal, collard greens and a butternut squash puree. It's a proven combination of accompanying flavors, if one not generally applied to mollusks, and I found it satisfying if less than thrilling.

Kentucky Fried Pheasant Dominic Armato
A dish I wish I'd gotten more than a fleeting taste of was the Kentucky fried pheasant, and it's on my short list for a return visit. Fried crispy and served with a yam waffle and hash of turnips and brussels sprouts, this one really flew (ha!) on its execution, incredibly moist and tender beneath a light and crispy crust. But my favorite dish of the night was actually my own, a "skate almondine" that went big on both flavor and texture. Done with a beurre noisette, creamy polenta, toasted almonds, haricot vert and a caper chutney with pomegranate seeds, it had a sweet-salty vibe that was put over the top by a great crust on the skate and the meticulous knife work that reduced all of the accompanying ingredients to a fine dice which simultaneously blended and released all of the big flavors involved.

Skate Almondine Dominic Armato
Desserts... well, you guys know me and desserts by now. Nothing was blowing me away. I thought the much ballyhooed deconstructed Snickers bar wasn't all that, and the apple fritters were the highlight of the sweets, but they were all classic flavors, slightly repackaged. Since opening, Bowles has been steadily toning down the menu in response to criticism that his mad scientist approach to junkfood integration was a little over the top. Having not sampled the menu until at least one round of major revisions had already taken place, I don't have the same perspective as some of his earlier patrons. But I wonder if the foiellipops, which I finally had the opportunity to try, weren't the perfect metaphor for how I felt about Graham Elliot. An old signature dish carried over from Avenues, the foiellipop is a slice of pure poached foie, lightly salted, stuck on a stick and rolled in pop rocks. I found the pop rocks to be a surprisingly good, if glaringly unorthodox, accompaniment. But more was needed to cut through the excessive, unseasoned richness of the foie, and it could have used -- of all things -- more pop rocks (a phrase, by the way, that I never dreamed I'd be using, least of all in a food blog).

The thing is, I actually found Bowles' fits of goofiness compelling. Or at the very least, they put me in a frame of mind where I could enjoy the dishes on a fun level without taking them too seriously. Not only do I think that's exactly the point, but I also wonder if much of the criticism levied against Graham Elliot is because of the expectations that were set by his stint at Avenues. Unburdened by such preconceived notions of what his food would be, I found myself simply getting caught up in the fun at times. It would be another story if he were turning out flat dishes, but the menu is mostly tasty -- sometimes extremely so -- and I wonder if raking him over the coals for overreaching at times is unfairly muzzling the guy. Bowles set out to do four star cuisine in a casual setting. I'm not sure he did either, really. Its vibe is a little forced and these dishes, transplanted, couldn't anchor a fine dining restaurant. But going in with the idea that you're going to have some good, irreverent food, there's a lot here to like.

Graham Elliot
217 West Huron Street
Chicago, IL 60654
Mon - Sat 5:00 PM - 10:30 PM

March 11, 2009

Hello, Boston...

Lobster Roll Dominic Armato

...good to see you again! Looks as though we might be getting better acquainted.

More soon...

March 10, 2009


Gnocchi with Pork Ragú Dominic Armato

Cleveland's been getting a lot of play as an underappreciated food town lately, and based on my recent experience, I'm disinclined to doubt those who say so. We've had two great meals at Lola and a wonderful welcome to Cambodian at Phnom Penh. We did some old school market shopping at the West Side Market, Lola's Berkshire crispy bacon was probably my favorite dish of 2008, and most recently we enjoyed a fine meal at Lola's little sister, Lolita. The only disappointment, really, has been Dante, which I never posted about since they announced they were closing up shop and moving to Tremont shortly after we ate there. This isn't exactly the largest sample, of course, but some of our most enjoyable meals over the past couple of years have been in Cleveland and there's a buzz around their restaurant scene that's tough to ignore. Methinks good things are afoot.

Lolita's no exception. As mentioned above, we've had some great meals at Lola over the past year, so when seeking something a little more laid back over the holidays, we decided it was time to give Lolita a try. Lolita's kind of the quirky little sister of Symon's Cleveland duo. It took over Lola's old space in Tremont when he made the big move downtown, and it has more of a bohemian bistro vibe. It's cozy and warm -- due in no small part to the pizza oven -- with about sixty seats, a small display kitchen and an even smaller bar. The place is a little decrepit in a cute sort of way, with tin ceilings, gauzy curtains, old ironwork and funky paper chandeliers studded with tiny, illuminated blue and green birds and butterflies. Carefully designed as it is, it manages to avoid looking like it's trying too hard.

Roasted BeetsDominic Armato
The menu is full of Symon's big flavor Mediterranean-influenced fare, but it's more casual and devotes special sections to pastas and pizzas. Though their reserves were tapped out on this particular evening, I nonetheless need to take a moment here to plug Symon's in-house charcuterie, which is just awesome. Yes, curing your own pork products is all the rage these days, and you've seen these boards in seventeen different restaurants over the past year, but we sampled some of his wares over at Lola in November, and this is how it should be done. Far from overcured (all too common a fate), these salumi are moist and supple and taste of meat rather than curing salts. The seasonings contribute without being overbearing about it, and the result is some really mature flavors. If available, do the Big Board, as they term their charcuterie assortment. Have it as an additional course if necessary.

Lamb Heart Confit BruschettaDominic Armato
Getting back to what we actually did sample at Lolita on this actual night, my ladylove started out with beets, for which she's a sucker. And to be fair, my wandering fork was equally pleased with her choice. Symon lays out roasted and chilled slices, almost like a thick carpaccio, pairs them with a fistful of exceptionally creamy honeyed ricotta, and dresses them with almonds and an orange zest vinaigrette. It's not the edgiest beet preparation -- we've seen a lot of this lately -- but it's uncommonly good. This is Symon's take on what's ordinarily a very light and refreshing dish. The ricotta is rich and wet, the dressing is unabashedly sweet and the honey doesn't exactly tone it down. It's roasted beets, big flavor style, and that makes it noteworthy, if not something I'll be pining for.

Wild Mushroom PizzaDominic Armato
My starter was another matter entirely. There is nothing timid about listing "lamb heart confit" on your menu, and not only does my heart go pitter-pat when I see such a description, but I naturally feel compelled to reward such bravado by ordering it. Of course, the fact that I've been on a bit of a heart kick helps. The allure of heart is that it's meaty, like taking a steak and squishing it and its accompanying flavor down into a package half its original size. On this count, there was no glossing over the origins of this dish. Tender and intense, with a sheen of natural fat and olive oil, the diced chunks of heart were mixed with a sweet allium (the exact nature escapes my memory) and set atop thick, crusty bread. Totally decadent, totally carnivorous, and my favorite of the night.

Gnocchi with Pork RagúDominic Armato
In buzzing around the web and doing a little research on Lolita before our visit, much was made of their Neapolitan pizzas. To be fair, I never saw this description coming from Symon himself, but let's be clear: Lolita's pizzas are not Neapolitan. They're too thin, too crisp -- more crust than bread -- to bear that moniker. But that bit of food geekery aside, who cares? They're very good. My ladylove and I opted to split one as a middle course, and these things are always a delicate negotiation, my instincts being to try funky combinations like lamb sausage with tomato and feta or pork belly with pickled green tomatoes, chiles and taleggio, while she's most happy with a traditional margherita. Since we ended up with wild mushroom with taleggio and arugula, I'm inclined to declare her the victor on this particular evening. But I was entirely satisfied with my loss. Earthy, full-flavored mushrooms offset by the cheese's fruity tang and a bit of fresh greenery, this is a winner as long as the ingredients are on, and they were most assuredly on. The crust, while lovely, isn't going to inspire any haiku, but at the risk of being redundant, Big Flavor strikes again and leaves me happy. I'm dying to get back for the pork belly with pickled tomato and chiles.

Hanger Steak Chickpeas and SkordaliaDominic Armato
Our entrees, though solid, were actually the low point of the evening. My ladylove's gnocchi received full marks for a fluffy, light texture, but the accompanying pork ragú came across as rather plain when compared to the warmup acts. This is probably a matter of expectations. It's tough to suddenly dial back to subtle and comforting when big flavor has ruled the day. But a solid dish, nonetheless. My hanger steak may similarly have suffered from expectations. At Lola in November, my sister-in-law was kind enough not to stab me in the back of the hand when I ate about a third of her exceptionally flavorful and confusingly tender (Hanger steak? Tender?) version thereof with pickled chiles. Seeing pickled chiles listed as an accompaniment again, I think I expected that sweet, explosive flavor a second time, and instead got something considerably more restrained, though still plenty wonky by any objective standard. Here, Symon pairs his hanger steak (possessed of a more realistic toughness this time around) with fully al dente chickpeas, skordalia and the aforementioned chiles. Though I know skordalia as intensely garlicky, this was a gentler sauce and sparingly used. The whole package didn't quite come together for me, but I was still left pleased, if pining for the version I'd tasted at Lola a month earlier.

Even down to the low points, however, a very good meal that will most certainly bring me back. It further cemented my opinion that Symon is a fellow who's earned his acclaim. He seems uninterested in getting overly refined, and given the character of his cooking, that's probably a good thing. I don't see him translating his style to fine dining (not that I wouldn't be curious to see him try). But this isn't brainless big flavor. Some may be turned off by the brashness of his food, but the underlying technique is solid. What's more, the guy can do the simple things like a good pizza or a good ragú, and Lolita is where he moves a little closer to that end of the spectrum while maintaining the intensity of flavor that seems to be his hallmark. Symon doesn't always have to be the Iron Chef, and Lolita is what you do when you're seeking Symon's Big Flavor but don't feel like Lola's accompanying Big Production.

900 Literary Road
Cleveland, OH 44113
Tue - Thu5:00 PM - 11:00 PM
Fri - Sat5:00 PM - 1:00 AM
Sun4:00 PM - 9:00 PM

March 08, 2009

Protein, Protein and More Protein

Pan Dripping Vinaigrette Dominic Armato

Doesn't look like much, but this has been one of my lifesavers over the past couple of months.

It turns out that the Top Chef hiatus came at a pretty good time. Since the holidays, my ladylove has been on a doctor-ordered very low carb diet. The imminence of our second offspring has caused her blood sugar to go a little wonky, and some corrective action was necessary. It's only temporary. But by the time she's done, it will have been a four month stretch with very little sugar, and no rice, fruit, bread or pasta... pasta. More accurately, I should say by the time we're done, because in a show of spousal solidarity, I've been doing it with her. Though the pasta thing is killing me, I'm mostly okay with the rest. In some ways, it's been a fun challenge. One of the first things I did was to make a forty-something item low carb menu containing a ton of recipes I've been wanting to try but haven't quite gotten around to. The long and short of it is that we're eating a ton of meat. And if this dietary sacrifice means I have to go pick up a good dry-aged steak once a week for us to share, I'd say we'll get through the next two months just fine.

Anyway, back to the photo above. These days, I'm a huge fan of pan vinaigrettes. We don't have a grill here, and it's been too cold outside anyway, so most of our meats have been of the braised or pan-seared variety. For the latter, I can't stand to let good pan drippings go, and balsamic vinegar is like ambrosia when you're on a low carb diet, so you do the math.

Here's a quick favorite we've made a few times during this run. Cauliflower is a fairly low carb vegetable, and given our love for sauteed cauliflower, we've been hitting it pretty hard. Here, I actually make the vinaigrette in the pan that was used for the cauliflower, which I think marries the meat and vegetable nicely. I've also been playing with Cook’s Illustrated's oven-then-pan method for steak cookery and getting some pretty impressive results out of it, hence the method used below. But if you're a traditional sear-and-blast person, by all means, cook it up that way. Or toss it on the grill if you're also in the midst of the unseasonably warm weather we're having this weekend. I realize mace and mint isn't the most orthodox combination, but after the first run I thought the meat needed something a little earthy and spicy and mace fit the bill. I think it works.

Dominic Armato

1 head cauliflower
5 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
4 cloves garlic
coarse salt & pepper
12-16 oz. thick NY strip steak
1/2 tsp. ground mace
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp. fresh mint chiffonade

Steak with Sautéed Cauliflower
and Mint Vinaigrette
Serves 2

After you move your oven rack to the center and preheat it to 275°, a little light prep. Trim the cauliflower and break it into small florets, slicing larger ones into halves or quarters, giving it time to dry after washing. Also, halve the steak with a single vertical cut through the middle, to create two filet-sized chunks. Sprinkle them all over with coarse salt and pepper and put them on a wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet. Pop the steaks in the oven and cook until they read 95° in the center (a little warmer for medium, a little cooler for rare -- if you want them well-done, why are you reading this blog?).

While the steaks are warming in the oven, start up the cauliflower. Put 3 Tbsp. of the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high, peel and crush the garlic cloves very lightly and toss them in the pan. Let them fry in the oil for a few minutes, turning, until they're lightly golden on all sides. Then remove them from the pan and discard them. Immediately toss in the cauliflower and spread it evenly around the pan. For the next minute or so, resist the urge to stir it. Let it be, so that the underside takes on a nice, golden color. Then toss it well, season with salt and pepper and continue cooking, occasionally stirring and tossing, for about 10-12 minutes until it starts to soften a little. Reduce the heat to low and continue cooking gently for another ten minutes or so, until it's tender and flavorful.

Meanwhile, sear up the steaks. Heat the vegetable oil in a cast iron skillet over high heat, and once the steaks have hit their internal temperature, remove them from the oven and lightly dust them on all sides with the mace (don't let them cool before searing!). Then transfer them to the pan, cooking for just a minute or two on each side to sear them, give them some nice color and finish cooking them. Continue to give them a very quick sear on the edges, then return them to the wire rack (out of the oven, this time), tent them with foil and let them rest for about ten minutes.

That'll give you time to finish up the cauliflower and cook up the vinaigrette. Once the cauliflower is done, check its seasoning and adjust for salt and pepper if necessary. Transfer the cauliflower to a warm plate or bowl, turn off the burner and add the remaining 2 Tbsp. olive oil and balsamic vinegar to the warm pan. Whisk them together, scraping up all of the seasoning and little bits of browned cauliflower, then mix in 1 Tbsp. of the mint and set the vinaigrette aside, off the heat.

To plate, divide the cauliflower between two plates. Thinly slice the steaks, fan them out and plate them with the cauliflower. Spoon the vinaigrette over the steaks, sprinkle them with the remaining fresh mint, and get them on the table.

March 06, 2009


A quick bit of housekeeping before getting back to the food.

In the comments of the last post, Steve was approximately the 73rd person to remind me that I don't have any kind of bio posted here. Thanks, Steve... I've been meaning to get around to that for, oh, about a year, and I needed another kick in the pants.

Enter the "About The Author" link on the right. Now nobody can call me an "anonymous blogger". Not that anybody did. But now they'll be SO wrong if they do.